The Value in Ground Engineering

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Now more than twenty years ago in his review in rethinking construction, Egan said that the construction industry at its best is excellent, but at the time of his review there was concern that it was underachieving and needed to deliver more inherent value. His conclusions also highlighted that the industry in general needs to educate and help its clients to differentiate between best value and price. The same conclusions apply to the Ground Engineering industry, in fact more so since unlike other products of construction built out of the ground, almost all our work is usually concealed from sight, in the ground. For us as an industry then, there really is an imperative to be able to provide evidence and compelling description of our value. Without doubt we are aware of this and often internally discuss this, but our mission is to take this external and present the evidence in terms and language that is understood by our clients and multi-disciplinary partners who hopefully become our advocates.

So, what is value? Clearly value is not necessarily the lowest cost or the quickest solution. A straw poll of leaders in major infrastructure yielded responses along the lines of value being ‘…the most effective way to achieve an outcome with legacy being important…’ This description highlights need for definition of outcome to measure ultimate success, optioneering to assess the most efficient or effective approaches to get there, and an eye on the timeline and downstream benefits. It’s arguably the journey to the outcome and downstream legacy benefits where we need to work most to ensure that counterparts and clients understand the value of our work.

Certainly, in the public sector, delivery of an outcome is rightly increasingly emphasising more than just simply cost with a move away from just transactional business to integrated, collaborative outcomes-focused delivery. Social value is often mentioned in tender criteria for ground engineering work, but a blended approach considering all of the Capitals is the direction of travel in major project procurement, these being human, manufactured, financial, natural, social and intellectual. Our industry regularly makes substantial contributions in all the Capitals areas, and especially in the circular economy, but would benefit from work, perhaps most appropriately initiated by the AGS, to measure and document outcomes more explicitly against these criteria in an array of common project tasks, building a body of compelling case study evidence. This would need to be accessible in the widest sense, kept current and be in those common areas that the target audience can easily relate to in language they appreciate. Doing so would probably place us at the forefront of the construction industry ahead of our colleagues in other related disciplines but we need it more given our benefits to a project are usually less obvious as noted above, unlike architecture, structural or civil engineering.

A decade ago the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) initiated a study with similar intent, advocating for the use of geosystems in civil engineering applications. The primary objective was reduction of wastage but this was to be achieved by greater knowledge and use of engineered geosystems (geosynthetics) as actually selected alternative options to conventional ground engineering construction approaches. In doing so this raised the profile of the geosynthetics industry principally through the presentation of case studies quantifying cost, time and environmental benefits by evaluation against more conventional construction approaches. The guidance was presented in an accessible way with information that clients and the developer market could relate to by including non-technical information and quantification in directly relevant terms, these being mainly financial savings.

Quantifying the benefits, the information was compelling mainly from identifying, especially in time and cost terms, the advantages of re-using site-won spoil which would otherwise have been sent to landfill and substituted for imported higher specification aggregates as well as high carbon steel and concrete. Case studies included back analysis of actual construction of environmental, financial and carbon cost of works including a grade separated highway interchange, a noise/environmental bund, retaining walls and fill platforms as compared to the delivery of the initial design. The study did present challenges in compiling evidence in that initial design information was sometimes not developed in detail and required reasonable assumptions in quantities to derive environmental and financial costs. However, the outcomes were nevertheless clear in terms of potential benefits.

Refreshed and expanded upon, this approach could be used as a template for building information on the benefits that the ground engineering industry brings, by utilising case studies underpinning common themes with clients. Current conversations within our industry are commonly too internally-focused, and availability of this type of information is invaluable to allow us to take our regular conversations externally and talk in those terms clients, counterparts, developers and, for that matter, the general public understand. Generally, the industry has a wealth of experience in the benefits of various ground engineering tasks which are almost waiting to be documented.

Case studies could include several case studies valuing a focused and appropriate site investigation versus the usual acknowledgement by decision-makers on the ‘need for boreholes’ without understanding the specific direct downstream benefits these provide in risk mitigation and options for geotechnical design and the opportunities for more sustainable or innovative solutions. They may also include common work in optimising retaining walls through further analysis and the direct opportunity to slim down or shallow the wall through more analysis. Ground improvement is essentially entirely directed to optimisation of shallow foundations and surely would be more commonly used or requested if information on applicability and advantages was better described in a non-technical and quantified way. Earthworks and re-use of materials is an area where there is perhaps most to gain through this approach.

In summary then, surely with the tools and knowledge we now have and routinely use, the time is ripe for us to take the initiative and move one step further in talking about value with our clients, regularly including specific value statements in our work, describing short term investment for longer term gain, development of non-technical guidance documents to demystify the industry, surveying our clients to let them know we’re serious in focusing on our customers and solicit areas for work to improve our offering, creating a collective compendium of quantified case studies identifying the value that the ground engineering industry contributes to society including the value ground engineering can bring to enhancing sustainable solutions. Some of this the AGS has certainly initiated but is this not a wider role for the AGS to initiate through a working party or similar?

Remembering the sage-like but obvious conclusion from Egan, we as specialists need to educate and help our clients differentiate between value and lowest price.

Article provided by Patrick Cox, Director Major Projects at AECOM